If 2005 was a great year for Memphis music, it often seemed like the music itself got obscured in the process. Stealing the headlines instead was the role of Memphis music in the movies: Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow, a loving, underdog story about Memphis rap, which woulda coulda made a deserving star of longtime M-town MC stalwart Al Kapone. Ira Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue, a wary portrait of a Sam Phillips-esque Memphis music pioneer. And Hollywood's Walk the Line, a Johnny Cash biopic that turned Memphis 2005 into a more than credible Memphis 1955. And there was the impact of Hurricane Katrina, sending New Orleans music and musicos to Memphis in the meantime and one of the Crescent City's best musical events, the Voodoo Music Experience, to Memphis for a day that underperformed expectations.
Along the way, Memphis musicians continued to make great music, whether in local studios or on club stages. Underground hip-hop rose to compete -- in artistic terms, anyway -- with a mainstream rap scene that was better than ever. Newish bands such as Augustine, Crippled Nation, and the Glass stepped to the forefront of the local rock scene. Established scene stars such as Lucero, the North Mississippi Allstars, and ex-Oblivian Jack Yarber made records that might be career bests.
In past years, we've had each of our local-music writers count down their faves, but this year we put our heads together to come up with a consensus on the year's best local releases. And we used the extra space to let our writers run wild, asking each for a list of what they found most memorable about Memphis music in 2005: What they loved. What they loathed. What sounds they couldn't get out of their heads.
Top 15 Local Albums of the Year
1. Don't Throw Your Love Away -- Jack O. & The Tearjerkers (Sympathy for the Record Industry): Don't Throw Your Love Away eviscerates the theory that you can't please everybody. The Tearjerkers' second Sympathy for the Record Industry release is a grab bag of style and sensibility. Punk, country, and blues commingle brilliantly with hat tips to Screamin' Jay Hawkins and the scarier side of Southern soul. Frontman and former Oblivian Jack Yarber wasn't born with the silkiest voice, but who needs pretty pipes when you can wail like Bob Dylan, roar like Tom Waits, and rock so hard you make Iggy Pop sound like a second-rate Frankie Avalon wannabe? (Okay, that last bit was a little over the top, but not by much.) Between raging punk rhapsodies and honky-tonk tragedies, Don't Throw Your Love Away pays strange tribute to Warren Zevon and stranger (possibly accidental) tribute to the Doobie Brothers. "Dope Sniffing Dog," the disc's strongest track, is an unforgettable guitar rave-up co-written by Yarber and former Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus. It comes on like scarlet fever and plays out like the best episode of Cops ever. -- Chris Davis
2. Electric Blue Watermelon -- North Mississippi Allstars (ATO): Their timing was either perfect or terrible, but the North Mississippi Allstars' Electric Blue Watermelon, which was released the same September weekend that bluesman R.L. Burnside was buried, provided an apt coda for their north Mississippi musical patriarch. Recorded in Memphis, a city that focuses on the good ol' days as much as it looks to the future, this Grammy-nominated album nevertheless finds new ways to bridge past and present, while on songs such as "Horseshoe" and "Moonshine," frontman Luther Dickinson stakes his claim as one of blues-rock's lyrical visionaries. Brass bands, raps, washboard licks, and even Lucinda Williams' whiskey-drenched voice float in and out of the mix, as the Allstars effortlessly sketch an aural map of the hill-country music scene. -- Andria Lisle
3. Broadcast -- Augustine (self-released): This impressive debut album is big broad-stroke indie rock that exorcises any stigma one might associate with the term "indie rock." With enough straight-ahead song construction to avoid alienating fans of grandiose, vocals-up-front guitar rock, Augustine manages to throw in unconventional rhythms, dynamic scares, and almost per-song episodes of guitar thunder and extravagance. As with the bands from the Makeshift collective, Augustine sounds nothing like what outsiders associate with Memphis and is a vital component to the de-pigeonholing of our independent music scene. As such, it's easy to imagine this band finding a sizable audience outside the city limits. -- Andrew Earles
4. Nobody's Darlings -- Lucero (Liberty & Lament/EastWest): For their fifth album, Memphis' most durable rock band returned to the basics. With original guitarist Brian Venable returning to the band, they recorded live and direct, with Jim Dickinson in the producer's seat and nary a note played by anyone but the four guys who've lived in a tour van for most of the past few years. The result: as confident a blend of indie-rock, Jawbreaker-esque punk, and Southern rock as they -- or anyone else -- has put together. "Watch It Burn" and "California" show their mastery of toe-tapping, beer-chugging, crowd-pleasing rave-ups. "And We Fell" and "Nobody's Darlings" are self-aware without being solipsistic. And "Bikeriders" and "The War" prove that Ben Nichols can write songs about subjects other than girls, liquor, and playing in a rock-and-roll band. -- Chris Herrington
5. All Seven Inches Plus Two More -- The River City Tanlines (Dirtnap): River City Tanlines principal vocalist and guitar mangler Alicja Trout has proven herself to be one of Memphis' most versatile, surprising, and satisfying artists. In light of her achievements with Mouse Rocket and the Lost Sounds, this singles collection seemed, at first glance, disappointing because it merely rocked. It also happened to be the purest dose of ass-kicking rock-and-roll to come out of Memphis in 2005, and the disc grows on you fast. The band head-fakes toward the Ronettes, then dives into Stooges territory with each song coming on like the best theme to the most breathtaking indie flick you've never seen. The Tanlines explode into a kind of desperate, terrified gospel as Trout chants, "You've got to get right," and swells to existential alert, "Cause here comes the night!" It's simply rock, and it's simply great. -- CD
6. Motivational Speaker -- Alvin Youngblood Hart (Tone Cool/Artemis): Maybe he doesn't haunt the clubs regularly enough to be fully embraced as "local," but Alvin Youngblood Hart is hands-down the most talented music maker in Memphis, and Motivational Speaker is a return to form that captures Hart in exactly the right setting. Blues purists may want to hear him on vintage acoustic instruments, but this man was born to have an electric guitar in his mighty hands and a pounding rock drummer at his back. Some seem to think "Americana" and "roots music" should connote polite folk-rock. I'll take stomping paeans to Sly Stone; loopy, lovable Doug Sahm covers; slow-burning blues-rock anthems; bracingly funky Stax tributes; aching honky-tonk. All on one album. All from one guy. -- CH
7. Everything's OK -- The Reverend Al Green (Blue Note): Recorded last summer at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio with mostly the same cast of Hi-connected characters as on 2003's comeback record I Can't Stop (guitarist/collaborator Teenie Hodges a notable absence), Everthing's OK is slightly less impressive but slightly more distinctive than the previous record. The richness of his mid-range slightly diminished, Green relies more on dynamics that swing low with guttural groans or up high to the soaring improvisations no one else has ever matched. A lot of the best tracks here seem barely written as songs. They exist as vehicles for Green and Mitchell to work their aural magic. -- CH
8. Hibernation -- The Glass (Makeshift): "Hibernation is all about waking up," said Glass frontman Brad Bailey, and that's as good a place as any to start. The Glass traded in their slow, aching, and stubbornly impressionistic shimmer for a bigger, cleaner, and more ominous sound. They swapped hopeless romanticism for politics and other hopeless causes. Most of all, 2005 is the year this beautiful but nearly morbid band got over their girlfriends, and themselves, and got down to the business of documenting their troubled world one striking image at a time. Throughout Hibernation meteors crash, cannibals munch, snakes crawl, and villages burn to unrelenting beats and singing guitars. -- CD
9. Concrete Swamp -- Tunnel Clones (Hemphix): MCs Bosco and Rachi and DJ Redeye Jedi serve as the perfect tour guides for this urban field trip, taking listeners on a musical journey that incorporates birdcalls, gospel moans, snare riffs, lilting strings, and free-form rap. Concrete Swamp, a startlingly straightforward hip-hop release for a city that's devoted to hardcore rap, surprises at every turn: "Voodoo" combines a horror-movie soundtrack with Bob Marley's anthemic "Get Up, Stand Up" and streetwise rhymes before fading into the Latin-tinged "What Do You Want?," which gives way to "Freedom of Thought," an uplifting, handclapping affirmation that sounds equal parts Arrested Development and De La Soul. Local college kids -- from the U of M and LeMoyne-Owen -- are already savvy to these hip-hop heroes; hopefully, in '06, the rest of Memphis will catch up. -- AL
10. Tronic Blanc -- Black Sunday (Dirtnap): With the Lost Sounds chapter closed, prolific Alijca Trout's many projects (Mouse Rocket, River City Tanlines) are no longer "side" projects but recipients of her evenly parlayed, expansive talent. This one, practically a solo outlet, will best satisfy those who miss the Lost Sounds, due in no small part to much of it being written and recorded while that band was active. While it builds on the Lost Sounds' apocalyptic electro-punk vision, attitude, and futuristic destitution (while momentarily channeling that band's aggression), there's much more here in the way of weird little pop songs and wavering levels of abrasiveness. -- AE
11. Somethin' Else -- Charlie Wood (Daddy-O): Charlie Wood is a performer's performer and the true jewel of Beale Street. Wood's a soulful, eclectic singer and keyboard artist cut from the same cloth as Tom Waits and Randy Newman. He glides easily between unbridled swing, juicy jazz, grimy R&B, and smoky late-night love songs to smoky late nights. Supported by squawking horns and steady rhythm courtesy of Renardo Ward and Gerard Harris, Somethin' Else gets the sheer joy of Wood's live set down cold. He's a complicated man, lost in the Memphis shuffle, looking for something -- possibly his hotel. "I must be dragged across the threshold, propped against the wall," Wood moans on "No Condition," a Seussian ode to inebriation. "Next to nothing is the most that I can do/Will you drive me?/Can I ride with you?" From its revisionist take on "Summertime" to the absurdist soul of the title track, Somethin' Else is classic lounge music, sophisticated and infectious. -- CD
12. The 1st Edition -- Iron Mic Coalition (self-released): Bringing together nine MCs, producers, and DJs from four distinct local acts, this one-record showcase for the city's underground hip-hop scene is less backpacker than Dixie-friend Wu-Tang Clan. It lacks the dark brilliance of those NYC forebears, but it evokes early Wu-Tang in its deep array of distinctive voices and its grimy, DIY texture. Highlights: Mighy Quinn, nimble and precise; Jason Harris, level-headed and conversational; Daralic, warm and laid-back; Empee, strident and unpredictable. -- CH
13. Most Known Unknown -- Three 6 Mafia (Hypnotize Minds/Sony Urban/Columbia): The simultaneous elusiveness and disregard of mainstream success elaborated on in the title track/intro seems to be something that Three 6 Mafia is comfortable with rather than frustrated by. Rest assured, even as "Knock Tha Black Off Yo ***" combines everything that makes Three 6 Mafia unique (and successful) -- their brand of infectiousness, violence, and dark humor -- it would nonetheless scare the living shit out of, say, the garden-variety Hollywood producer, what with the detailing of, among other things, the amount of money it would take to have an adversary "chopped up like some Rendezvous BBQ tips." This is not to devalue the massive and deserved (Southern) crossover appeal that they've cultivated, which can be indirectly summed up by a scenario I recently witnessed in a local music store: a Patagonia-donning frat boy returning the "chopped and screwed" version of this album because "there's something wrong with how it sounds." -- AE
14. Natural Kicks -- Natural Kicks (Miz Kafrin): This year, Ron Franklin has worn a lot of hats: He's backed Monsieur Jeffrey Evans in the Memphis Roadmasters; made a movie; fronted his own group, the Ron Franklin Entertainers; and released two solo albums. Yet none of his projects have resonated with local audiences more than his self-described "power trio," the Natural Kicks. Cut at local musical mecca Royal Studio, Natural Kicks finds a relentless Franklin, bassist Ilene Markell, and drummer Jack Yarber pounding the killing floor. Treading the fine line between garage-rock and R&B, Franklin coolly channels the power of Gories/Dirtbombs frontman Mick Collins on distorted rockers like "Dark Night, Cold Ground," then fans the flames on rave-ups like "C'mon Sarah (Let's Shack Up Again)." -- AL
15. New Born -- Calvin Newborn (Yellow Dog): By the time this jazz guitarist aimed for salvation, he'd already tried everything else: He admits to abusing drugs, liquor, and women in As Quiet As It's Kept, a self-published biography of his brother, Phineas Newborn Jr., while recordings and photographs attest to wild days traveling cross-country with Ike Turner and Lionel Hampton and wilder nights at clubs like the Flamingo Room and the Plantation Inn. But in his seventh decade, Calvin Newborn found religion. Recorded at Sam Phillips Studio with Scott Bomar at the helm and players like Donald Brown, Herman Green, and Charlie Wood, New Born features a reflective, redemptive musician on a comeback album that's truly heaven-sent. -- AL